I’m having serious second thoughts as my mother’s Ford Explorer approaches the Cedar Woods Community Clubhouse. The allure surrounding this must-go-to pool party suddenly evaporates and I clutch my stomach as intense surges of panic stab at my insides like sharp little knives. Drawing a deep calming breath, I try to shake off the doubts rattling around my skull:
What if no one talks to me? What if they all stand around whispering and laughing at me like in school? My best friend Kayla’s warning haunts me: You think they’re not going to make your life miserable just because you’re at a party?
The Explorer rolls to a stop in front of the vast green lawn encircling the stately brick clubhouse. My nose twitches from the smell of fresh-cut grass as I crane my head out the window to scan the grounds for the Ice Queen and her Things.
“Honey!” my mom shouts. “I’ve asked you twice what time you want to be picked up and you keep ignoring me.”
I stop chipping at my pink rose nail polish and glance up. “Uh…sorry Mom. Didn’t hear you.”
“You never seem to hear me. I’m going to meet your father at his office and go out to dinner. Should we get you on the way back?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll text you.” I slide out of the SUV, brushing the tiny pink flakes off my lap. My eyes dart around the perimeter to see if anyone is watching.
Small clusters of people are scattered here and there, some near the road, some by the clubhouse entrance, but no one seems to be paying any attention to me.
My fingertips cling to the edge of the car door as I make my final decision. Should I really do this? What if Kayla’s right?
I push out a deep breath, then swing the door closed.
“Just make sure it’s before midnight,” my mom yells through the open window. “Your father’s been working around the clock all week on this huge case and he’s exhausted. He doesn’t want another late night.”
“Okay Mom,” I call over my shoulder, adjusting the straps of my new bikini top that slipped out from under my turquoise cami.
At the sound of a high-pitched beep emanating from the bottom of my beach bag, I dig my fingers around until I find my phone. It’s a Snapchat from Rachel, my other best friend: “Good luck!”
I immediately send a message back: “Going in now. Am I really stupid?”
“Yes, don’t go.”
“Need to,” I reply.
“You really think Hunter Hartman will be there?”
“Leave if things get bad.”
I slip the phone back into my bag and continue up the long path. If I get to talk to Hunter Hartman this will all be worth it. We’re in the same psychology class and he always says hello, but we’ve never actually had a conversation. He sits with his people on the far side of the room by the windows, and I spend every class trying not to stare at those incredible light green eyes and muscular arms.
The knots in my stomach tighten and travel up to my throat as I near the front gate. I stop before I cross through, my legs feeling like heavy tree stumps, the tips of the knives in my gut growing sharper.
I give myself a pep talk: I can fit in here, just like everybody else. There’s nothing wrong with me. No matter what happens don’t cry…not in front of them.
As I take a baby step toward the main entrance, an animated voice bellows. “Blair! I’m so glad you came. It’s great to see you!”
Mrs. Levine rushes over and plants a warm, welcoming kiss on my cheek, her dark ponytail grazing my bare shoulder. I know I got invited to this party because of her, and unlike her saccharine-sweet daughter Alyssa—who my friends and I call Splenda—she’s genuinely excited whenever she sees me.
“Great to see you too,” I say.
“Are you all ready for finals next week?” she asks. “I told Alyssa that after tonight she has to study every minute. She has physics and pre-calculus on Monday and English on Tuesday. What about you?”
“I have only one on Monday, but the rest of the week is going to be horrible.”
Mrs. Levine pats my upper arm, her cherry-red lips extending into a smile. “Oh, you don’t have to worry, you’re such a good student. I always see your name on the honor roll. Alyssa, on the other hand—”
“Well, one more week and we’re all free,” I break in, trying to change topics.
Thankfully, she follows my lead. “Your mother said you’re lifeguarding again this summer.”
I nod, discreetly looking past her to see who’s already there. She keeps talking, gesticulating with her hands, waving them back and forth in front of my face.
“That’s wonderful that you’re making some money. Alyssa’s going to that performing arts camp in Upstate New York again—the one that costs a small fortune. I wish she’d get a job too.”
“I hope you don’t tell her that. She really loves that camp,” I say.
“I always tell her she should be more like you….”
Uh-oh. You’re only causing me problems.
I force a polite smile and nod some more as Mrs. Levine drones on, regaling me with stories of her own teenage jobs. I’ve completely stopped listening and am desperately trying to figure out how to escape when another mother interrupts looking for the paper cups.
“Mind if I borrow her?” the petite woman asks me as she places a hand on Mrs. Levine’s forearm. “We need to set up the drinks area.”
Please take her!
“No problem,” I say.
Once I’m free, I practically dive through the main gates. But I have no luck. As soon as I step inside, I find myself blockaded by Splenda and her greeting committee—Molly Mullet and BM. These girls are not, and will never be, my friends.
The Mullet is really Molly DiFrancesco, one of the leads in the spring musical. She prances around with her nose tilted upward, like she’s a Broadway star who’s too good to associate with the common folk. Back in sixth-grade science when we learned there was a tropical molly fish, everyone started calling her Molly Mullet. My friends and I shortened it to just Mullet in high school when we got tired of her holier-than-thou attitude. We could’ve called her Bosc since her bottom half has a striking resemblance to a pear, but we went with the fish.
And BM doesn’t actually stand for the gross body function. The initials represent the two words that best describe Erin O’Donnell: Big Mouth. The whole school calls her BM. It’s because Erin makes herself into a caricature by accentuating her giant lips with deep burgundy lipstick and dark liner. At first glance all you see is this larger-than-life mouth popping out at you like in a 3-D horror flick. And it doesn’t help that she’s one of the biggest gossipers in the school.
“Oh…you decided to come,” Splenda remarks in a cold tone, her embarrassment at seeing me dangling off each word. Of course, if our moms were watching, Splenda would be masquerading as my adoring friend. But there’s no need for pretense now.
“You know you don’t belong here,” BM chimes in.
“You invited me,” I retort, smiling as pleasantly as possible at Splenda.
“You weren’t supposed to come though. You know my mother made me invite you.” Splenda turns toward her friends and assumes a defensive air. “It wasn’t my fault.”
The last thing I want is a confrontation, but what am I supposed to do? I’ve had it with Splenda’s saccharine-sweetness. Now that she’s showing off for her friends, the artificial façade is gone and the real Splenda—the nasty, spiteful one—is fully exposed. She may think she’s great, but I know everything about this girl, like she wore Pull-ups through fourth grade and was always such a spaz growing up no one ever wanted her on their team in gym class.
I’m not going to let her keep me from this party—I have to say something. The best I can come up with is: “Your mother is so nice. What happened to you?”
“She doesn’t know you’re such a freak!” Splenda fires back.
There’s that “f” word that I hate more than anything. If I could, I’d remove it from the dictionary. My entire body stiffens, and my cheeks start to burn. I can’t stop my long-suppressed anger and frustration from bubbling to the surface and spilling out.
“Yeah? You didn’t think so when you hid in my house after your nose job,” I say. Even though Splenda didn’t want anyone to know the real reason for her Christmas-time operation, Mrs. Levine had been straight up with my mom.
Splenda gasps, as if shocked by my accusation. She places her right hand over her heart, like she’s saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and loudly announces, “I had a deviated septum. Everyone knows that!”
The gloves are off. Why pretend there’s anything left to salvage of our fake friendship? “The only thing deviated is your ability to tell the truth!” I retort.
“Are you calling her a liar?” Molly Mullet asks, hands on her wide hips.
I glare at the Mullet. “Was I talking to you?”
“I think you should leave now,” BM declares with an authoritative edge, folding her thick arms over her humongous chest.
Is she really telling me to leave before I even walk in?
I’m speechless at first and don’t know how to react. If I let them chase me away, I’ll never get to the good people at the party. I hate doing it, but I have to match their rudeness or they’ll think I’m weak and afraid and they can just squash me.
I finally recover enough to stammer, “I…I didn’t know you could think. I thought your big mouth just moves by itself!”
The Mullet’s awful fish face looks like it’s about to start spouting out steam instead of water. “Blair, you don’t belong at this party.” She thrusts her right index finger between my eyes as she enunciates each word in a harsh staccato, “There-Is-No-Room-For-Losers-Like-You-Here!”
Now the “L” word?
It’s three against one and they’re relentless. I have to stop their attack. Fight fire with fire. “You’re right. There’s no room for me or anybody else here because of your big butt!” I extend out my arms, simulating the immense size of the Mullet’s pear-shaped rear end.
This is obviously not the first time she’s heard a butt joke and she comes right back at me. “At least I have a body and I’m not a pre-pubescent little twig like you!”
I happen to be rather self-conscious about my skinny freckled body, but I try to think of a clever response, spitting something else out that I’d never normally say. “Hey, this little twig broke the school record this year for the fifty-meter backstroke. What have you broken lately? Your kitchen chairs?”
“You’re such a bitch, Blair!” Splenda spews, her face hot crimson.
I know from one look at my former friend that I’ve won this battle and need to get out of here fast. With my head held high I throw Splenda the widest, phoniest grin I can muster and brush past the nasty trio, flicking my wrist in a triumphant wave.
“Well, thanks so much for the invite,” I call over my shoulder.
As I distance myself from the rotten threesome, I can practically feel the icy shards their eyes fire into my back. I don’t need to hear their exact words to know they’re cursing me out big time.
I walk about twenty more yards, stop, breathe deeply, and squeeze my eyes closed. Here I am so worried about the Ice Queen and her Things when just getting through the front gate was a disaster. Maybe I should skip out back and head to Betty Boo’s for Double Fudge Cinnamon Graham Cracker ice cream with my real friends before things get any worse.